This time last year, Kate Snyder was running for mayor of Portland, promising that she would lead the city in the right direction through listening and collaboration.

But 2020 shows what happens when you make plans.

For the last five months, Portland has been in the midst of a crisis that gets deeper and more complicated every day.

“I went in there thinking I could plan, work with the council, work with the staff, identify the priorities and impose some (structure) on our work,” she said in a phone interview Thursday. And that’s how it went for the first three months.

But since then, she said, “It’s constant reaction.”

The latest crisis is an encampment on the steps of City Hall, where people who are homeless and their allies are protesting the condition of services for the poorest of the poor, which have been exposed as inadequate by the coronavirus pandemic.

Snyder met with some of the protesters on Wednesday to listen to their concerns, an unusual public event with the media present for a mayor who likes working behind the scenes. She said that she is looking for ways to meet their demands for access to bathrooms and showers, but things like affordable-housing construction will take time. 

It also takes time to build trust. It takes time to build consensus. And time is in short supply.

It’s not just the protesters. Lots of people in Portland have lost their patience.

Portland was one of the first places in the state to shut down facing the spread of coronavirus, and the city almost immediately started bleeding revenue.

The city manager’s budget proposal had to be yanked right before the City Council started working on it, depriving the new mayor of what might be the most significant role municipal officials can play. As the winter started to recede, Portland’s elected government melted from public view.

COVID has hit the city hard, especially in minority communities where people work in tight settings like Tyson Foods and live in crowded apartments.

Black Lives Matter activists took to the streets in June to protest police brutality in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, and some of their local leadership focused their demands on ousting City Manager Jon Jennings, who they say has supported public health policies that had a discriminatory impact on people of color.

Snyder got the council to create a committee that would identify institutional racism, first in the city’s Police Department, and then, possibly, in other departments. But the committee doesn’t have the support of the protest leaders, who say they don’t trust the city to examine itself. They said that they were not interested in waiting for a study and want the council to meet their demands.

In another sign of impatience, voters last month overwhelmingly supported establishing a charter commission that would rewrite the city’s constitution. Some people voted for it because they want a “strong” mayor to be the city’s chief executive. Others say they want to return to a ceremonial mayor, chosen by the City Council. But either way, you can’t call it a vote of confidence in the status quo.

Action on the charter won’t take place for months, but the election that’s three months away could be one of the most significant in the city’s history.

Three city councilors are up for re-election, and none of them plans to run again for their seats. (District 4 Councilor Justin Costa is running in a three-way race for the at-large seat being vacated by Jill Duson.) None of the three school board members whose terms expire is running this year.

In addition, at least six referendums will be on the ballot, five sponsored by an organization called People First Portland, a campaign of Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America aimed at reducing economic inequality. They include a $15 minimum wage, rent control and a local Green New Deal, and if they pass, they cannot be altered by the council for five years. 

Meanwhile, the campaign will take place as the City Council works through a revised budget that projects a lot less revenue for existing services, let alone expanded ones. That’s a process that’s going to spawn new sets of crises.

Snyder says she knows that she is not going to be able to do the job in the way she thought possible last year. 

And she knows it’s going to be a while before there’s anything like consensus in the city.

“I’m going to have to get used to hearing from a lot of people not agreeing that I’m doing a good job,” she said.

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